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Debate Intensifies as National Park Service Urges Arkansas to List 3 Tributaries to the Buffalo Rive

Officials with the National Park Service recently asked the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality ("ADEQ") to list three tributaries to the Buffalo National River on the department's 303(d) list, which is a designation of all the polluted water bodies in Arkansas. Currently, ADEQ has refused to place the three waterways, Mill Creek, Bear Creek and Big Creek, on the list. If the creeks were placed on the list, it could result in studies and the implementation of limits on the ability of cities, businesses or individuals to discharge wastewater into those bodies of water.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette quoted Chuck Bitting, natural resource program manager for the National Park Service at the Buffalo National River, as saying that "[w]e just want to protect our water quality as best we can because 1 million people rely on it," referring to the number of people who visit the Buffalo National River each year. In 2014, more than 1.3 million people visited the river and spent about $56.5 million at area businesses, according to National Park Service data.

According to ADEQ spokesperson Katherine Benenati, the data obtained for the "period of record" (before April 1, 2015) does not indicate impairment for those creeks. She said that ADEQ staff is reviewing the data and that it could also be considered for ADEQ's next cycle of amendments to the 303(d) list, which will occur in 2018.

Environmental groups, including the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, recently publicized their dissapoint in ADEQ's failure to include the tributaries on the 303(d) list. Gordon Watkins, the group's president, told the Arkansas Times that the Park Service is the "accepted and most respected" steward of the Buffalo River, and that ADEQ should provide the public with an explanation for why it is disregarding the Park Service's advice on this issue.

Bitting told the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette that maintaining the water quality in these three tributaries to the Buffalo River is important because ""[w]e want to protect our visitors from getting an infection from wading, canoeing or swimming in the Buffalo River and its tributaries within the National River boundary."

In a letter to ADEQ, Park Superintendent Kevin Cheri noted that the Buffalo River is designated as critical habitat for several threatened and endangered species. Cheri also wrote that the law designating the Buffalo River as a national river requires that the park be managed in "such a way that it conserves the unique scenic and scientific resources and preserves the Buffalo River as a free-flowing stream for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations."

The public is invited to submit written comments to ADEQ weighing in on this issue. The public comment period ends at 4:30 p.m. on March 11, 2016.

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